Innocence Deterred: The Central Park Five

By: Anthony Pollinzi 

On the night of August 19, 1989, there were numerous reports of a group of more than twenty teenagers wandering the vicinity near Central Park and terrorizing citizens in its path.[i] The first of this series of violent events occurred north of the 102nd Street transverse where Michael Vigna was menaced by the group.[ii] Minutes later, Antonio Diaz was assaulted and robbed near the 102nd Street transverse. Diaz was left unconscious in the wake of this brutal attack.[iii] Approximately ten minutes after the first attack, a couple riding a tandem bicycle was harassed by the group near the 102nd entrance to Central Park.[iv] A cab driver reported that, just south of the third attack, his vehicle was pummeled by rocks.[v] When he attempted to investigate, he was threatened by the group.[vi]

Twenty minutes after the initial report, four separate joggers were reportedly harassed by the group at the northern end of the Central Park Reservoir.[vii] Two of these joggers escaped, but Robert Garner and John Loughlin were not so lucky.[viii] Garner was not seriously hurt in the assault but Loughlin was left unconscious after being beaten, though none of his injuries were considered to be potentially fatal.[ix] About three hours after the attacks on the male joggers, two men stumbled upon the scene of a brutal rape.[x] The victim, Trisha Meili, was a twenty nine year old white investment banker and her story would grow to be one of the most widely publicized rape cases in history.[xi] She was left robbed, nearly naked, unconscious, and in critical condition, but eventually recovered from the attack.[xii] Unfortunately, the young men wrongfully convicted for Meili’s rape would never be able to recover.

Eleven teenagers were charged for crimes arising from the events that night.[xiii] The five that would eventually come to be known as the “Central Park Five,” were the only five that the police were able to “convince” to admit some culpability for the attack.[xiv] The “Central Park Five” consisted of Kevin Richardson (Fourteen years old), Antron McCray (Fifteen years old), Raymond Santana (Fourteen years old), Yusef Salaam (Fifteen years old), and Kharey Wise (Sixteen years old).[xv] The boys were placed in separate rooms, many of whom were not accompanied by a guardian or attorney during the beginning of their intensive interrogations that lasted for hours.[xvi]  The police used manipulative methods to coerce the boys into confessing by using lies, their extensive knowledge of the criminal justice system, and the children’s ignorance of the legal system and their rights.[xvii] One boy was told that fingerprints had been found on the victim.[xviii] Another was told that he could go home if he confessed and implicated the real perpetrators.[xix]

The boys were questioned for hours on end and taken advantage of in a mentally exhausted state with little to no legal advice during what would be some of the most important hours of their lives.[xx] All five of the boys refused to admit that they had actually raped the victim, but each of them admitted to restraining the victim or participating in the crime in some other way.[xxi] Each of the boys pointed out other individuals or members of the group other than themselves as the actual perpetrators of the rape.[xxii] None of these stories were consistent with each other or the physical evidence obtained by the police.[xxiii] Unfortunately, the prosecution hinged their case almost entirely on the inconsistent confessions of the five young boys. In addition to the confessions, the prosecution used science, which is now outdated, and reached the counterintuitive conclusion that only one of the boys could have been the rapist. The science would eventually be considered inaccurate for the time period by other forensic scientists.[xxiv]

Although the case was weak in court, the media made a strong case against the boys with its extensive coverage where the notion of “innocent before proven guilty” was tossed aside and the boys were branded as delinquents and criminals.[xxv] Typically, the information of minors is kept private, but in this case, the media published the names, photos, and even addresses of the boys.[xxvi] The culmination of the extensive media coverage, the socioeconomic class of the victim, the location of the attack, and other aggravating factors put extreme pressure on the State’s government and law enforcement agencies to punish those responsible for the brutal attacks.[xxvii]

Because of that pressure, along with the State’s fervor to find a party culpable for the tragedy, the State convicted and imprisoned the five boys.[xxviii] Unfortunately, this miscarriage of justice would not be rectified until the actual perpetrator, a serial rapist who had committed multiple rapes in a manner consistent with the rape of the “Central Park Jogger”, came forward after a chance encounter with one of the five in prison more than a decade after the boys had been imprisoned.[xxix] Although the “Central Park Five” would eventually be released, they could never be freed from the emotional scars of their interrogations, prosecution, and imprisonment, their negative public image, or the effects of spending their formative years behind bars.[xxx]

Negative Public Image

Because of the extensive media coverage at the time of the attacks as well as after the attacks, the “Central Park Five” never had a chance at a normal life.[xxxi] Although their status as felons had officially been removed by the State, there were multiple parties that continued to insist they were in some way culpable for the attacks.[xxxii]

Even though the District Attorney handling the case at the time the motions to vacate were filed requested that the judge grant the motions, the District Attorney who oversaw the original prosecution of the “Central Park Five”, though she was no longer involved with the case, strongly opposed the recommendation that the judge vacate the convictions.[xxxiii] The Police Commissioner stood by the convictions, stating, “the Judge’s ruling has neither exonerated the defendants nor found any collusion or coercion on the part of the police.”[xxxiv] Even an officer who publicly stated that the actual perpetrator was “capable of doing anything” and that he was “one of the top five lunatics” he had talked to “across the table” during his tenure of over twenty five years with the New York Police Department, believed that the officers overseeing the confessions would “absolutely not” risk their jobs to “put words in the mouth of a fifteen year old kid.” Despite this statement, the false confessions still exist.[xxxv]

Along with the officers and attorneys who did not commit to believing in the innocence of the boys, other individuals also continued to denounce the “Central Park Five”.[xxxvi] One of the most notable of the denouncers was Donald Trump.[xxxvii] Trump posted full page ads in multiple New York newspapers calling the boys “muggers and murderers” in a plea to bring back the death penalty in 1990 and, after the settlement was reached, publicly denounced and shamed New York for attempting to rectify the situation. Trump called it “a disgrace” and claimed that he had spoken to a detective who called the settlement “the heist of the century.”[xxxviii] Trump never addressed the actual perpetrator, but instead stated that “these young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels” even though their pasts only consisted of fourteen to sixteen years.[xxxix]

In wrongful conviction cases, due to the negative media coverage, public statements, and the decision of the State to not explicitly state that their conviction was wrong, the statements that are made perpetuate the incorrect and harmful notion that these victims are dangerous, a notion that likely haunts the exonerees in every aspect of their lives as they attempt to regain control of the lives that were taken from them.[xl]

Civil Cases

“When you have a person who has been exonerated of a crime the city provides no services to transition him back to society. The only thing left is something like this [a civil law suit] so you can receive some type of money so you can survive.” Raymond Santana, one of the “Central Park Five”.[xli]

Many exonerees do not have the ability to file a civil suit. However, the “Central Park Five” sued the City in federal court for constitutional violations in 2004 and eventually settled for over forty million dollars in 2014, over a decade after their release.[xlii] Then-Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, resisted the suit, citing that the law regarding wrongful convictions does not allow the wrongfully convicted to recover when their confessions helped lead to their convictions. Spitzer did not address the possibility of the NYPD having coerced the confessions from the boys.[xliii] Michael Bloomberg resisted the suit but when Bill de Blasio took office as mayor of New York City he noted that “an injustice was done and we have a moral obligation to respond to that injustice,” and the civil suit was settled.[xliv]

[i] https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://wps.prenhall.com/wps/media/objects/13023/13335893/downloadables/NYDA%2520motion%2520in%2520Jogger%2520case.pdf&ved=0CBwQFjAAahUKEwiuwqmeiKnHahWOFplKHYdDACk&usg=AFQjCNHLyK7MRA9rLNnkuTesrD222222LETHXIZ&sig2=8RunAHltgOusuqWb7fL5IA (“District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate”)

[ii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[iii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[iv] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[v] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[vi] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[vii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[viii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[ix] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[x] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xi] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xiii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xiv] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xv] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xvi] The Central Park Five (Ken Burns Documentary)

[xvii] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xviii] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xix] The Central Park Five (Ken Burns Documentary)

[xx] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xxi] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxiii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxiv] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxv] The Central Park Five (Ken Burns Documentary)

[xxvi] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xxvii] The Central Park Five (Ken Burns Documentary)

[xxviii] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxix] District Attorney’s Affirmation In Response To Motion To Vacate

[xxx] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xxxi] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-pursue-money-41m-settlement-article-1.2036527

[xxxii] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xxxiii] http://www.wikipedia.org/centralparkjoggercase

[xxxiv] http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/n_7836/index1.html

[xxxv] http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/n_7836/index1.html

[xxxvi] http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/Donald-trump-and-the-central-park-five

[xxxvii] http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/Donald-trump-and-the-central-park-five

[xxxviii] http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/Donald-trump-and-the-central-park-five

[xxxix] http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/Donald-trump-and-the-central-park-five

[xl] http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/crimelaw/features/n_7836/index1.html

[xli] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-pursue-money-41m-settlement-article-1.2036527

[xlii] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-pursue-money-41m-settlement-article-1.2036527

[xliii] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-pursue-money-41m-settlement-article-1.2036527

[xliv] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/central-park-pursue-money-41m-settlement-article-1.2036527

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